Tribe secures water in northwestern Arizona

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By Christina O'Haver By Christina O'Haver

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) -- A northwestern Arizona tribe has secured water rights to a Colorado River tributary and is hoping to use a federal settlement as a springboard to pursue other claims.

A settlement approved this week in Congress gives the Hualapai Tribe hundreds of acre-feet per year from the Bill Williams River watershed. It also includes funding for water and infrastructure studies on the reservation, where tribal officials have struggled to provide running water for tourists at the Grand Canyon Skywalk.

Tribal Chairwoman Sherry Counts said Wednesday that the water rights are a fraction of what already is allotted to others around the state. But Counts said the agreement will lay the foundation to negotiate water rights from the Colorado River, which runs for 108 miles along the reservation's northern boundary.

"The tribe is grateful to Congress for passing of this vital legislation, and we thank the members of the Arizona delegation who worked so hard for this outcome," she said in a statement.

The dispute over water in the west-central Arizona watershed stemmed from concerns the tribe had over plans by Freeport McMoRan Inc. to transfer water rights to its well field along the Big Sandy River, a tributary of the Bill Williams River. Under the settlement, Freeport will cap its use from its Wikieup well field and recognize the rights of the tribe and other individual tribal land owners on nearby parcels.

The company also agreed to give the Arizona Game and Fish Department 3,400 acres of farm land at Planet Ranch that will be managed for habitat conservation. The company's water rights there would be severed and transferred to support its copper-mine operation in Bagdad that employs about 900 people.

The settlement is a good example of partnerships between public and private entities to resolve long-standing water disputes and clarifies what's available statewide, Freeport spokesman Eric Kinneberg said.

The tribe will get an immediate $1 million contribution from Freeport for water and infrastructure studies and what U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar called a "substantial contribution" to its economic development trust.

Gosar sponsored the measure in the House, while Jeff Flake and John McCain sponsored the companion measure in the U.S. Senate. Both passed this week and now await a signature from President Barack Obama.

Gosar said the settlement provides certainty to American Indian and other water users in the region, including the Bagdad Mine about 65 miles south of the tribal capital of Peach Springs. The mine is a significant economic driver and employer for Mohave County, he said.

Under the agreement, residents also would be granted access to fishing and hunting areas that previously were off-limits, Gosar said.

County officials said there was no guarantee of increased public access. They said they opposed the settlement because it could impact future development and result in less money from sales and property taxes for county coffers.

"The water and lands are in Mohave and La Paz Counties, but neither was asked or allowed to participate in their own futures," Mohave County Supervisor Buster Johnson said.

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